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Small-time Maryland poker leagues don't fold in the face of big casinos

Sunday - 10/6/2013, 7:46am  ET

Sydney Paul, Capital News Service

COLUMBIA, Md. - It's poker night at the Second Chance Saloon and 21 players at three tables are playing Texas Hold ‘Em.

"I'm all in," exclaims Ywain Ferguson of Catonsville, throwing all his chips - $68 in play money - into the pot, a move that wins the hand.

If Ferguson was at Maryland Live Casino - a 20-minute drive away - he might have gone home with a sizable amount of cash. Instead, he leaves with nothing but fun memories made with his weekly poker buddies - something he values much more.

Small-time poker games - like the weekly one played at Columbia's Second Chance Saloon for points, not cash - are thriving in Maryland despite the emergence of high-stakes poker rooms across the state.

Ferguson, who has been playing cards since he was 5, said the bar games are not about winning or losing money, but about coming out to have fun.

"Not everybody has the money to go down [to high-stakes rooms] and play for money," he said.

Poker players looking for games outside of a casino have several legal options.

Bars and restaurants can host point-based poker leagues where players are eligible to win trips to play in high-stakes poker games or other prizes. In charity events, like Salisbury's Mid-Atlantic Charity Poker Classic, top finishers receive cash after a cut is taken out for non-profit organizations. Any other type of poker game played outside of a casino for cash, including home games, are illegal, according Maryland state law.

Poker games in these environments are designed to offer a community-oriented, non- gambling alternative to a casino's poker room, Second Chance Saloon co-owner Wendy Binder said.

"It's like comparing apples and oranges," she said.

In casino poker rooms such as Maryland Live, players can enter a table game by putting cash down - or buying in - sometimes without a monetary limit. Players can enter low-stakes games like Second Chance Saloon's for free. There is less risk in the latter because there's no money at stake.

"Although it's challenging and I like the competition, it's not the same type of competition I find when I go to a live poker room and I'm going to have to put 120 hard-earned dollars down on the game," said Susan Gebren, of Columbia, who plays regularly at the Second Chance Saloon.

Professional players typically avoid the recreational games because there isn't money involved.

"They're not real poker players. They're casual players," said Germantown poker player David Greene, who placed eighth in this year's World Series of Poker Pot Limit Omaha $1,500 buy-in event.

There are players, like Gebren, who enjoy both bar games and the high-stakes poker rooms. Gebren says she prefers the casino because there's more strategy when money is involved. At the Second Chance Saloon, it's all about camaraderie.

That's what keeps Ferguson coming back week after week: the friends he's made, the smack talk, the food, the music and the poker.

"You can argue and scream at somebody tonight, and tomorrow night you're playing with them in a different place and they're buying you a drink and you're having fun," Ferguson said. "It's all about friendship."

(Copyright 2013 by Capital News Service. All Rights Reserved.)

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